I made my way out of the building, nodding once to the portly hostel keeper on my way through the lobby. He looked me up and down in a way that made me wonder if he grappled same-sex. I dismissed the thought as I strode out into the dim light of the Coscarla.
I turned onto the main avenue, knowing that I’d have to pass through the market to get to the Union Hall. There is a press in a hive city, a constant hum of humanity going about its business that can put the uninitiated ill at ease. Here, in the Coscarla Segment, that press was absent. In its place was a hollowness.
Though I could see hundreds of people going about their lives, the dim light and loneliness of the place seemed to paint the scene as a giant lie, as if these people were only the shadows of a dying Segment. In truth, they were.
My walk took me past burned out habstacks and abandoned dwellings; those who could afford to relocate had already done so. None were left here but the destitute and the very stubborn.
The market was heavy with desperation. Vendors hawked ragged clothes, unidentifiable meats, substandard guns and ammo, and nutrient slime likely vat-harvested somewhere downhive. There was nothing untouched by the soot of the Coscarla; once-bright canopies, now blackened, lay slumped over tables like carrion birds spreading their wings over a carcass. I weaved my way through the lines of stalls quickly, approximating the hurried gait of the locals.
I finally made it to the Union Hall, a gathering place for the workers of the Coscarla who still had jobs. This was the available recreation for most, and as in more downtrodden places than I cared to count, the bar was the most popular destination within it.
The Union bar was dim, a large room with game tables and a massive slab of plascrete forming the actual bar. A steel mirror hung behind the bar, surrounded by bottles of liquor. About half the bottles were commercial, about half were homebrewed. I resolved to avoid the homebrew, as you never really know what local ingredients are present, nor which of those will be toxic or blinding.
The bartender was a short plug of a man with too few teeth and too little hair. He asked what I was drinking, and I pointed to a commercial ale and ducked my head like any other dreg would after a hard shift. I was largely ignored, hunched over on my stool as I was, which was fine by me. I used the mirror to scan the room every so often, taking in the same crowd I’d seen in a thousand other bars…the faces changed, but the crowd never did.
I’d been on the barstool for about ten minutes when two faces I knew entered the bar, Venus and Barick walking in and taking a place at a table. They leaned in and talked to each other, and the lone waitress stopped and got a drink order from them. I watched Barick in the mirror as he looked around the room, a slow scan that took in the whole room and all those in it.
Barick stood then, walking to another table occupied by the prettiest girl in the room. She was about a five, but her chest was an eight. I saw Barick motion the waitress over, and he bought her a drink. Great, I thought with no small amount of sarcasm, I get to watch a master interrogator at work.
Their conversation was too quiet for me to hear over the bar noise, and I kept my attention moving around the room thanks to the big mirror. So I noticed when one of the workers threw down his darts and started a beeline for Barick’s table. A few of his buddies tagged along with him, and in moments they’d made a semicircle around the table.
The boyfriend must have been a heavy laborer, as his forearms were massive. He spit his words out from behind a long bush of a beard.
“Exactly what the frak do ya think yer doing, tourist?”
“Just having a drink, friend”, Barick replied. I barely managed not to wince, as I twisted slightly on the barstool for a quick intervention if needed.
“I’m not yer friend, and that’s my woman. You lookin’ to eat some teeth?” The workers were leaning in now, eager for a fight.
“She’s a fine lady, and I apologize. I should have known she’d belong to somebody”, Barick said, a salesman’s smile stamped on his face. “Let me buy you guys a drink.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Venus twisting her pendant, which I’d learned meant some interesting things would be following soon. That necklace is her psy-focus, she’d told me, a tool some psykers use to “tune in” before using their unique gifts. The workers started to back off a bit, a free drink a fitting apology to those who hadn’t been affronted in the first place. The boyfriend, however, wasn’t ready to let it go.
“Don’t buy me shit, boy. Stand up and get yer due”, the burly worker said. It looked like the balloon was going to go up, and I started to slide off my stool. Then I saw Venus go stiff, the burly boyfriend similarly rigid for a moment. She’d done something, but I didn’t know what.
Suddenly, the worker staggered into his friends, eyes wide, muttering the Supplication of the Emperor’s Grace over and over. I slid back onto my stool, unnoticed, as Barick addressed the workers.
“What’s wrong with your friend?” he asked. They all looked bewildered, and helped him into a chair. He continued to pray.
Barick looked to me, and I made a discrete “get lost” gesture. He nodded once, already breaking eye contact. “Well, I hope he’s OK boys. You all have a good night, and enjoy that drink on me.” He laid some money on the waitress’ tray and made his way out the door. Venus stayed, looking very interested in her drink. So much for the master interrogator.
I decided to see if I could have any better luck, and even though it’s a cliché on more than ten thousand worlds, I waved the bartender over to pump him for information.
I slurred my speech slightly, and endured the barman’s halitosis for ten minutes of boring conversation. I learned that Saul, the deceased, used to frequent this bar, and that the numbers of patrons were dwindling. I learned that people tended to stay off the streets at night; there were rumors of attacks at night, but the barman thought people were just leaving the Coscarla. The only real nugget of information the bartender dropped was that there was a decent drug trade going on, and that if I was really looking for a good time I should get in touch with a ganger named Luntz.
I slid off the stool, eager to head back to the hostel. Venus saw me rise and headed out the door before me, maintaining the illusion that we weren’t together. She joined me on the opposite side of the market, and we walked back together, sharing a bit of a laugh at Barick’s expense.
Venus and I walked into room 3 arm-in-arm, both smiling. Everyone was there, and I greeted Barick teasingly. “Hey, there’s Loverboy!” He glared at me, but he knew I was just taking the frak.
“Well did you do any better?” he asked.
“As a matter of fact, yes” I replied.
“Well what did you find out?” he asked. I told them.
Likewise, Sila and Ignace had used their time well. They’d found a mountain of information about the region, the crime rates, and more. There seemed to be a string of missing person reports, none solved by the local enforcers. Sila had also found reference in a buried report to a heretical group called the Logicians, but the report was sketchy at best. Still, it was the only local reference to any true heresy, so we put it in the list of possible clues, of which we had few.
As the hour was late, I bid everyone a good night, and turned in. We all knew it would be a full day tomorrow, and we were right. Doubly so, since our day actually started late that night.
I woke from sleep like surfacing after a dive, my every sense telling me something was wrong. As my eyes snapped open, I realized I wasn’t alone in the room. In the dim light, I could see two figures, the nearest holding a knife. I came out of the bed like I was fired from a bow, my fingers closing on the laspistol under my pillow. I leveled the business end at the intruders.
“Now let’s all just be very still”, I said, and rubbed sleep out of my eyes with my off hand. I bit back a yawn and glared at the two scummers.
I could hear the sounds of scuffling throughout the other rooms around us. Just then, my mirror wobbled and shattered, and I hoped that meant that Venus had just done something with her powers. The knife wielder still looked confident, but the other scum had pissed himself when the mirror went crazy.
“Lay down and put your hands behind your head.” Pissboy did. Knifeboy didn’t. He lunged at me, and I shot him in the face, and told the other to stay put. He whimpered, but complied, and I hurriedly donned my belt, holstering the pistol.
“Report!” I yelled into the hallway. A chorus of “Clear” answered me, along with the sound of pounding feet. I leaned into the hall to see Draylock, the hostelkeeper, making for the stairs. “Runner!” I yelled, and I ran after him. He had a good lead, but I had a feeling I’d done more running in my lifetime than he had.
I trailed him by maybe 15 meters as I exited the building, and I kicked into a slightly higher gear. I was stricken by the darkness, the night cycle here was punctuated by very few light sources, and some of those were merely promethium torches.
I had gained a meter or two on Draylock, and I could see him beginning to tire, heaving for breath. It would only be a matter of time. I was shocked, and nearly fell, when he was tackled from the side by a large, rag-wrapped thing with red eyes. It moved silently, making no sounds. What I could see of its flesh was sickly green, and though it looked human I instinctively knew that it wasn’t anymore, if it ever had been.
By reflex I stopped and drew my laspistol, the front sight coming to rest on the thing just as it twisted Draylock’s head 180 degrees with a sickening snap. The trigger pull came just as naturally, and a hole appeared in its torso. It seemed not to notice, and I took an involuntary step backwards as its red eyes locked on to me like two targeting lasers.
I squeezed the trigger again, and I was dimly aware of the sound of pounding feet behind me. I heard Barick curse, and knew he had seen the thing. We fired at it again, and it fled, ripping up a sewer cover and diving into the muck below. It had ignored our shots, making no sound at all. It had hefted the cover as if it were a box lid. I was more than a little worried about whatever it was, but we had to follow it.
Barick, Ignace, Venus, and I climbed down into the sewers, Ignace using the modified auspex to try to track the thing down. We spent an hour slogging through muck better left untouched, and came no closer to finding it. We decided our time would be better spent taking a long shower and cleaning our gear, so we climbed back up out of the drainage system, and returned to the hostel.
Sila had questioned the scum I’d caught, and was told that Draylock would invite the gang in to rob guests from time to time for a cut of the take. He’d picked the wrong guests this time, and paid for it with his life. I felt no pity whatsoever, though I was still disturbed by the zombie thing we’d seen. I had no idea how disturbing things could get.